- Today in Houellebecq: the author has inveighed against Le Monde, the French newspaper of record, for publishing a series of unauthorized pieces about him. Calling journalists “parasites” and “cockroaches,” Houellebecq dismissed the articles for their “malicious sneakiness,” noting that he’d refused to meet the reporter and had explicitly instructed his friends not to speak with her. “Knowing which Monoprix I shop in is not a subject of national importance,” he wrote—somewhat mystifyingly, as the Le Monde piece made no mention of said Monoprix. (He’s also recently announced an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, where he’ll show “photographs, installations and films, along with commissions by other artists such as Iggy Pop and Robert Combas.”)
- Reading: Why bother? What’s all the fuss about? Four new books aim to show that reading makes us thoughtful and empathetic—“training” for the art of being human. “We might describe it as paideutic criticism, the term taken from the ancient Greek idea of paideia—the original foundation of humanistic study. Paideia meant the pursuit of self-knowledge through examination of the beautiful and the good … By reading and rereading the classics in the company of these genial guides, Virgils to our Dante, we can, in a more modestly modern way, achieve some similar serenity.”
- We can also find serenity in forgetfulness, which allows us to let go of that ultimate nuisance, personal identity: Going along with Locke’s view of memory as identity is the narrative theory of identity—the idea that one forges and maintains an identity by weaving a coherent narrative out of memories, tying one’s present to one’s past. Memory and the process of remembering are essential to this. Forgetting is an enemy, causing narrative gaps and undermining the sense of having a coherent narrative … Some people court forgetfulness. My students like to quote the old adage that ‘ignorance is bliss’ when we talk about memory and forgetting; from this they think it follows, as night follows day, that ignorance is to be preferred to knowledge when such knowledge undermines happiness. If forgetfulness serves the goal of bliss, who wouldn’t pursue it?”
- In the wake of the controversy surrounding Duke and three students who refuse to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Sam Stephenson remembers his time teaching at the university’s Center for Documentary Studies: “ ‘There are people teaching at Duke that barely graduated from UNC,’ I’d tell my students on the first day of class. The ones who laughed usually proved to be the more engaged and thoughtful documentarians … The outlying students—the ones frustrated by the emphasis of their fellow students on linear, pre-professional tracks—tended to find their way to our building, on the wrong side of the tracks, literally … These three students who are objecting to Bechdel’s book could use a dose of good documentary engagement. (I doubt they would have thought my introductory class joke was funny.) The words document and doctor come from the same Latin root, docere, which means, variously, to teach, to learn, to pay attention, to care, and, ultimately, to heal.”
- There’s a highly advanced, deeply treacherous form of storytelling far beyond the realm of mere literature: dating. Specifically, sugar dating, in which courtship between a sugar daddy and a sugar baby is clouded by the exchange of money. “You can tell yourself whatever story you want, and eventually you’ll forget you’re telling a story and you’ll find yourself in the parking lot of a Pizzeria Uno getting sucked off by someone who thinks she’s getting the better end of the deal. And the worst part is, you’ll think you’re helping her. And she’ll give you that blow job, all the while wondering how she could get so lucky, how you could be so dumb. Everyone gets what they want. And, sure, what’s so wrong with that?”
“In one corner of the room there was a television, and I find it difficult to avoid a television—not because I am so intent on the game shows and confessions, but just because a moving image is very difficult to ignore. If I’m trying to read on one of those ancient planes where they silently display the film on a screen at the front, I keep looking up at it and losing my concentration, just as in the airport lounge already I will have been distracted by the silent news, and the mini frenzy of its montage.” Usually when we say that something sounds like a translation, it’s a bad thing, but Adam Thirlwell’s new novel Lurid & Cute sounds like brainy colloquial English translated into some slightly brainier (more formal? more poetic? more European?) idiom. We don’t go around talking about “ancient planes” or “the game shows and confessions,” but Zeno might. That interplay between banality and beauty—between the merely cute, or merely lurid, and deep ironic observation—kept me hurrying back to the book. It is, as James Wood might say, “unreliably unreliable”—either a parody or else the end point of a certain kind of wide-eyed man-boy narrator, like Jonathan Safran Foer on crystal, with a gun. —Lorin Stein
“The incident was really quite typical, but still curious … And that’s all.” Most of Daniil Kharms’s writing could be summed up this way—this is, in fact, the way he began and ended a certain forty-five-word story. Several of his stories end with “And that’s it, more or less” and plenty more do so in spirit. They’re so casually, almost indifferently, related that they read like fables—inexhaustible, with an underlying wisdom or moral that, in the case of Kharms’s work, is difficult to pinpoint. That’s because, as Ian Frazier points out in his wonderful recent essay in The New York Review of Books, Kharms’s work falls into a “subgenre of cheerfully moronic writing” that rejects any form of rationality. It’s a kind of humor that can easily get lost in translation (or not—I wonder how many Russians get it). Frazier’s piece sent me running back to my own copy of Today I Wrote Nothing, a selection of Kharms’s writing. I find that reading his prose and poetry requires a kind of release, a letting go of expectations and a faith that the nonsense will pay off. And it does. A man pummels another man with his dentures. A man meets another man who’s bought bread. A succession of women fall out the window until the narrator gets tired of watching. And that’s it, more or less. —Nicole Rudick Read More
Most people are oppressed in some way or other by their family’s expectations, by their parents’ psychological issues, by any number of things. And it holds us back, it limits who we can be in the world. We’re so consumed with our personal problems that we’re not doing more important things. I mean, who am I to talk? All I do is sit in my basement making notes about my therapy sessions. But I want us all to be autonomous and think for ourselves and do the things we’re good at, and I think that’s much more the exception than the rule for people. Not to mention living in a democracy that’s functional. I mean, if we were all really doing those things, what would our world look like?
This latest round of “genius” grants—always with those pesky tone quotes!—inspired NPR to look back at the work of Amy Clampitt, whose poems the Review occasionally published before her death in 1994. Clampitt, a 1992 MacArthur fellow, used her grant money to buy a home in Lenox, Massachusetts, “a small, clapboard house that became the seventy-two-year-old poet’s first major purchase.” Soon after, Clampitt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and her husband Harold Korn
dreamed up a fund to benefit poetry and the literary arts. Since 2003, the house Clampitt bought with her MacArthur money has been used to help rising poets by offering six- to twelve-month tuition-free residencies …
This December, the nineteenth resident of the house Amy Clampitt purchased with her MacArthur purse will settle in, get to work and likely draw on some of the same things that inspired Clampitt. Among them is a small box on the mantel filled with the late poet’s beach glass collection.
Clampitt was interviewed for our Art of Poetry series in the Spring 1993 issue, where she elaborated on another collection of sorts:
My own original handwritten drafts are usually on the backs of those silly announcements law firms send out, that so-and-so has just been appointed a partner, which would otherwise go into the wastebasket, and which my best friend Hal, a law professor, saves for me. They’re printed on fine creamy vellum, and they’re very small—four-by-six inches or so, though maddeningly there isn’t even a standard size. I’ve put away stacks of these things for a single poem.
Below is an abbreviated list of Paris Review contributors who have been awarded grants over the twenty-three years of the Fellows program: Read More
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle—judging by the half that’s been translated into English—is a tough book for a critic to grapple with: a six-volume autobiographical novel that can spend fifty pages describing a teenage beer run or a second-grader’s first day at school. The book was a sensation when it appeared in Norway, five years ago; since then it has fascinated (and puzzled) many readers in America, from James Wood and Zadie Smith to Jonathan Lethem. Volume Three is my favorite so far, though no doubt the effect is cumulative: I’ve never read such a vivid depiction of ordinary child abuse—the legal, non-sexual kind—from a child’s point of view; I have never seen a writer evoke the world of child’s play so vividly, or the view from the back seat of a car on a long drive. Not everyone feels the love. In The Nation, the irascible William Deresiewicz dismisses My Struggle as a “giant selfie,” wishes Knausgaard wrote more like John Updike or Saul Bellow, and chalks up the enthusiasm of his fans to narcissism: “The spectacle of a fellow author’s self-revelation . . . has obvious professional significance.” It’s rarely a good sign when a reviewer vents his spleen on other readers. For a corrective, see Ben Lerner in the London Review of Books. Lerner notices all the same things as Deresiewicz—Knausgaard’s use of cliche, his digressions, his seeming lack of form or invention—then tries, brilliantly and persuasively, to explain why they work. Lerner places My Struggle in a long tradition of novels at war with novelistic convention, a tradition that he associates with the avant garde and that others might call realism itself. Agree with it or not, this is actual criticism. As Lerner writes: “It’s easy to marshal examples of what makes My Struggle mediocre. The problem is: it’s amazing.” —Lorin Stein
On Wednesday night, I had the great pleasure of seeing an interview with D’Angelo, perhaps the most gifted, elusive artist working in R&B—he’s ascended into the pantheon with Sly Stone and Prince, visionary but inscrutable. With 2000’s Voodoo, D’Angelo made what remains the definitive soul record of the past fifteen years, a languid, earthy tour de force that borrows in equal measure from the church and the street. Since then, he hasn’t released a thing; he’s scarcely even performed in public. So his appearance on Wednesday had a sense of anticipation: would he announce a new album? He didn’t, but he was such a gracious, remarkable, casual speaker that it didn’t matter. NPR has posted a transcript of the conversation, which was held before a sold-out crowd at Brooklyn Museum. It touches on his adolescence in Richmond, Virginia; his painstaking, deeply hermetic recording process; and his gospel-inflected approach to songwriting. Nelson George, the interviewer, put it best when he told D’Angelo, “You’re one of the few people who has mystique, you know that. I mean in the age of TMZ and all that stuff … there’s an aura still about your career. It’s very unusual today for anybody to have any mystery left.” —Dan Piepenbring
I recently unearthed a 1999 LRB review by Edward Said of a tennis anthology edited by the novelist Caryl Phillips. When I think of tennis, I don’t think of Said (nor do I imagine Phillips, for that matter)—all the more reason to give it my attention. I also have a vested interest in tennis. My father grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, and played near the West Side Tennis Club (the club wouldn’t let Jews join, but he did see early professionals such as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and a sixteen-year-old Chris Evert play there); his father played competitive tennis into his early nineties (the pool of players in his age group was quite small, as you might imagine); and I grew up watching tennis matches on television with my parents and trying to learn the sport myself. Though I only sometimes watch Wimbledon or the US Open now, I can tell the stakes have changed. As Said bemoans, tennis has largely lost its amateur class, and its league of professional players are “technical specialists” ruined by commercial interests. Federer is lovely to watch, but his recent dominance of the game was boring. The women’s game, Said points out, retains its “human pace” and “inventiveness.” That no single woman dominates the sport makes the matches more fun to watch, more exciting, more … sporting. —Nicole Rudick
In 1934, Oscar Reutersvärd pioneered the modeling of “impossible objects,” two-dimensional figures that project a three-dimensional object when viewed from a particular direction. The puzzle game “Monument Valley,” available on both iOS and Android, is built on this optical illusion—a sort of architectural Sudoku. It allows the player to interact with the isometric environment of dead-end paths and trick doors, moving the game’s protagonist, Ida, through gaps that seem to defy logic. The game is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever played. It’s like, as many have noted, an M. C. Escher drawing brought to life. The game designer Ken Wong told Wired, “We hope players will stay engaged for the same reasons they might enjoy a walk through a museum or an art gallery.” —Justin Alvarez Read More
- Amazon has launched a juggernaut of a Kindle store in Australia.
- The Joseph Brodsky reading list for facilitating intelligent conversation.
- Alison Bechdel on heading to Broadway.
- Writing for good health
Francesco Pacifico’s novel The Story of My Purity is narrated by Piero Rosini. This Piero seems like most other modern schlubs—thirty, overweight, bourgeois, in a sexless marriage, you know it—but the thing that makes him unusual is his deep belief in Christ. This is the most Catholic narrator in contemporary literature. He is also the funniest Catholic narrator in contemporary literature. And what happens to Piero is some kind of picaresque adventure that takes him from Rome to Paris and beyond, into all the problems of his innocence. What else do you need to know about Piero’s creator? Francesco Pacifico is also a translator from English into Italian, and translation is something we talk about a lot. In fact, he has almost definitely read more fiction in English than you have. And if an inglese italianato is the devil incarnate, then what does that make an italiano americano? I just mean that Francesco Pacifico is one of the least innocent novelists I know.
There’s a moment where Piero says “nobody’s Roman,” and this setting of Rome is crucial to the book’s opening. So my first question is, are you Roman?
I am, and I’m not. I was born in Rome and have lived there all my life. But I don’t know how to cook trippa and pajata, I know nothing of Rome’s cuisine pauvre, my family’s half-assed culinary traditions are half abbruzzese and half everything. My father’s side comes from L’Aquila, Abbruzzio, where my granddad’s family was big during the Fascist era, or so I’m told. My mother’s side is from everywhere, the hills of Sabina, and remotely Spain and France, and they travelled the country as my granddad was an engineer for the electric company—Milan, Genoa, Terni. I don’t feel Roman. You can spot a real Roman from miles. Savvy, gritty, ironic. I’m not.
And now—to keep with first things first—could you talk a little about this theme of purity? It seems such a gorgeously perverse subject for a contemporary novel. What’s the beauty of purity?
I experimented with not having sex for years. And I am a renowned lover of women. There was a time in my midtwenties where I thought of my life as an ongoing piece of performance art, and I realized the big thing I should try was to stop having sex. I had this romantic view of my love for my girlfriend being exalted and enhanced by abstinence. I became impotent. Read More